Philippines: The war against ‘tambays’ (bystanders) – An anti-poor nationwide curfew

After President Duterte spoke of his wish to see city streets rid of bystanders who like to spend the night at street corners and public places singing, drinking, gambling or just shooting the breeze, the Philippine National Police started rounding up everyone they thought had no business being where they were. In so doing, the police effectively resurrected the anti-vagrancy law, which was erased from the Revised Penal Code by an act of Congress in March 2012.

The PNP defends its actions by saying that each one of the more than 5,000 people they had “invited” or arrested, and put in jail, was picked up from the streets for violating a local ordinance. It could be for drinking in public, gambling, causing alarm and scandal, urinating in a public place, being half-naked in public, or possessing a bladed weapon, etc. Not for vagrancy.

I am certain that, at least on paper, the arresting officers would make sure that the detention of the “tambays” they have rounded up in compliance with the President’s verbal order would be legally defensible. In any event, they don’t expect their actions to be challenged in court by any of the detainees.

So, first, they arrest the “tambays” without a warrant. Then, they choose randomly from the thousand and one offenses in the book some petty crime or misdemeanor with which to charge them. If the detained “tambays” are meek and submissive, and show no hint of anger or defiance, they will be sent home in a few days. They will be detained just long enough to teach them, and people like them, a lesson in “urbanidad” they won’t forget.

I don’t think there is enough prison space remaining in our city jails to hold this new category of offenders even just for a week. The police know that. Our city jails are already bursting with inmates who have been arrested for drug offenses and other crimes. Unable to post bail, they live in squalor inside congested cages, subject to the whims of police officers and the viciousness of prison gangs, and perennially exposed to the peril of infectious diseases. Having no means to affect the pace in which the cases against them are processed, they wait indefinitely. Many would prefer outright conviction if it was the only way to get out of the brutish existence inside the country’s city jails. They know that the conditions in the state penitentiaries are a lot better.

What might be the objective behind this ill-conceived shock-and-awe operation against “tambays”? My guess is that the intent is purely to terrorize and deter. The spectacle of “tambays” spending time in the city jail, at the mercy of hardened criminals who rule these crowded cells in collusion with corrupt policemen, was meant to deter people from using the streets at night as places of conviviality.

This is tantamount to enforcing a nationwide curfew, without having to formally declare martial law. It violates the Bill of Rights. Without giving any thought to its consequences and ramifications, the police might have assumed that, despite its dubious legality, most peace-loving citizens would welcome seeing the streets cleared of loiterers and potential troublemakers.

If there is anything truly anti-poor, it is this. It shows no understanding, and absolutely no empathy, for the millions of impoverished Filipinos who need to stay outdoors most of the time if only to be able to breathe. I know that many poor families who live in the smallest hovels imaginable often have to share the scanty space they inhabit with other homeless families that must wait for their turn to sleep.

The streets are to the poor what salas or verandas or gardens are to the rich. The dimly-lit carinderia around the street is their Starbucks. Its service area spills out into the road al fresco not by choice but by necessity. The principle tacitly at work here is the same one that makes people in the countryside use well-paved roads as drying spaces for palay. It seems abusive at first glance, until, upon closer look, one discovers the unstated rules governing the use of these streets as shared communal spaces.

It shocks me that the police, many of whose members originated from these same neighborhoods, would treat the city streets where poor people live as though they were territory to be wrested back from the enemy.

They and President Duterte, whose daily fulminations they thoughtlessly translate into policy, could learn a thing or two from the folk wisdom of those who have lived among the poor. Here’s a searing depiction of the war on “tambays,” crafted in verse by a young poet who goes by the initials BSJ, that has recently gone viral on social media:

“Maliit ang bahay ko, walang kusina walang banyo/
Sa sala na amin ring kwarto, nag-aaral ang aking bunso./
Wala rin kaming pridyider, para magtago ng yelo./
Mainit sa loob ng kwarto, sarap ng cold water sa baso./
Masikip na iskinita, siksikan ang mga tao./
Tanging ginhawa ko, ang tindahan sa kanto./
Dito lang may tinda, malamig na coke litro. Pwede ilista, kasi walang resibo./
Ewan ko ba ngayon, bakit galit ang idol kong pangulo./
Sa mga dukhang tulad ko, nagpapahinga lamang galing sa trabaho./
Dito lang sa kanto, sa tindahan tabi ng poso./
Dadamputin kaming tambay, bakit meron bang Martial Law?”

My house is small, no kitchen no bathroom/
In our living room, also our bedroom, my youngest is studying/
Neither do we have a refrigerator, to keep some ice/
It is hot inside the room, cold water would be nice to drink/
A small alley, packed up by people/
My sole comfort is the store at the corner/
It is here where things are sold, a cold liter of coca-cola. One can have it listed down as there is no receipt/
I really do not understand today why my idol president is angry/
Against poor people like me, just resting after coming back from work/
Here at the corner, by the store near the water pump/
We standing-byers are being arrested, why?, is there Martial Law?/

Randy David - @inquirerdotnet